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Jump in at the deep end

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

The Germans are extremely persistent. They have staying power, are resistant and adaptable. But before jumping in at the deep end, they startle a little. So what can be done in times of change?

German version here

Volker Maiborn stands in front of a wall. In front of him 500 employees who are silent. On the photo wall every employee of the Munich IT consultancy Maiborn-Wolff is immortalized with his image and name. The new ones are marked with a colored curl.

For a long time nobody has been able to remember all faces here. That's why every month a new up-to-date poster is printed out and hung up. This is the only way to keep tracks of who is new and who is who in this beehive that deals with important turnover and permanent change.

In Germany, more and more people seems to be disoriented. There are robots who take the jobs away from us. Climate change is forcing us to act. Disruptive startups attack the established corporations. Global migration turns offices into laboratories of intercultural cooperation.

We need to change if we want to survive in tomorrow's world of work - as the saying goes. For example, digitization brings with it "considerable changes in company human resources policy," writes the Institute for Employment Research (IAB). "Knowledge that is acquired through continuing education plays a central role in this."

Change management in steps

At Maiborn-Wolff, each employee has an annual training budget of a gross monthly salary. So far, this has been spent in a conventional manner. The IT consultants booked a seminar, drove to the hotel, listened to the lecture of the expert, asked one or the other question, then drove back to the office - and forget most of it. That's why the company is now radically transforming its continuing education concept. The learning units are to become finer-scale, more digital and more individual - just as in the strategy of the small steps that Stanford scholar BJ Fogg has been preaching for a few years (see below). They want to weave them into everyday work like little, colourful threads. Here is a video tutorial on the screen, there a professional exchange with colleagues, then again, a short round with a guest.

This is how you make changes possible

Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg is convinced that the strategy of small steps can help anyone to develop new and better routines. Fogg recommends the following procedure:

Set a target. One possible goal could be to eat healthier in the office. Consider small steps. Habits help you reach your goal - eating an apple every day, for example Connect to routine. As a vague idea, the intention to eat an apple every day quickly disappears. But if he is coupled to a routine, he goes into daily action. Example: If you eat at your desk at lunchtime, you put down an apple in the morning - and after a while you automatically reach for the healthy fruit.

"We keep poking our employees over instead of going to the hotel with them twice a year for the seminar. This preserves the willingness to change, "believes Volker Maiborn. "Learning becomes quite normal." One and a half years ago, the process had started. It will probably be another one to two years before the wheels are readjusted.

"We tend to change too fast and too much, too slow and too little," says Volker Maiborn. His house currently employs 500 people, in 2011 it was 50. The average age is around 34 years old. There are 13 areas organized per services.

In 2017, the company had abolished the fixed allocation of the areas to one of the five managing directors. Cause: too inflexible.

Most recently, the field of artificial intelligence was added, for which one had specifically solicited a postdoctoral fellow from the Technical University of Munich. In early 2019, Maiborn-Wolff opened an office in Tunis, in June the location in Hamburg's Hafencity was added. For many employees this is too much, too fast, too anonymous.

Arousing a desire for change

Forced changes are more burdensome than voluntary ones, psychologists like to point that out. But this is also an opportunity. When people learn something new on their own or start a project, they find it easier to make changes.

At best, that goes so far that they simply carve their dream job themselves. Industrial psychologists have come up with a special term for this. "Workers who do more job crafting feel less stressed in their work," says Hannes Zacher, organizational psychologist at the University of Leipzig.

Job crafting is a way to proactively deal with change. It starts by just asking a colleague for advice. Or to ask the supervisor for a training, if one notices that the own abilities are no longer up to date.

Create one's own job, improve it, fill it with content and life. But the framework conditions in the company must be right. A degree of freedom of choice is required, including sympathetic colleagues who help.

Maiborn-Wolff relies on freedom of choice. Each employee should invest 80 percent of his time in customer projects. That's the bread and butter business. The remaining 20 percent he can devote to his own projects.

Also celebrate small successes

Achievements can already be admired on a small scale. For example, employees from the Internet of Things field created a sensor that indicates from outside whether the company shower is currently occupied. For the cyclists who arrive in the morning sweaty in the office, this is a nice thing.

IT consulting has introduced seven hierarchical levels. In the annual discussion, it is determined whether the employee is ready for the next step or not. Sometimes he is fully convinced, and the employer has nothing to complain about. But even that holds dangers.

Praise already maintains existing strengths and habits, nothing more. "I strongly advise against giving only positive feedback," says Hannes Zacher. "Positive feedback is harmful if you want to bring change."

Anyone who wants to change the behavior of employees must criticize them. And it gets really tricky.

To label someone as unreliable or to attach other negative qualities to him is a clear no-go, according to Zacher. Because properties are stable, they suggest lack of change. And they stick.

How motivating are negative feedback

Who is constantly greedily looking at his sandwich is not creative enough. At some point he will believe it and stop any efforts in its work.

"It's always questionable when people relate feedback to themselves because it can damage their self-esteem," says the organizational psychologist. His advice to companies: never name the characteristics of an employee, but always aim at its behaviour and offer as concrete as possible specific changes.

"When negative feedback clearly relates to behaviour or tasks, it can be very effective and motivating." For HR professionals, this is truly a balancing act.

"Transparency is important," says Volker Maiborn. Employees would only make good decisions - and recognize a need for change - if they know the background.

That is why no secret is made of the most important indicators in the house: sales figures, capacity utilization, daily rates. If an area does not work economically, its members quickly realize that they have to come up with something.

"Of course, there are also employees we have to nudge," says Maiborn. "They cuddle up to what they are doing there."

What change projects fail Only 23 percent of all change projects in German companies were successful last year. More than three quarters of all projects failed or fizzled out. The reasons:

17% Management 12% old structures 6% Lack of resources 4% Lack of competence 9% Other

Source: Mutaree, Change Fitness Study 2018

Defining the direction

Dieter Lederer also does not believe in autonomy and self-determination. He calls himself "the changer." Lederer has been working as a management consultant for 20 years, primarily advising large corporations and medium-sized companies.

"That every employee always wants to contribute himself, I do not see that in the world out there," says the trained engineer. "Managers have to set the direction. I miss that with many. Most companies are too busy with numbers, data, facts. " Psychologist Zacher confirms that a higher-level vision is important: "When many changes impact each other completely independently, it can trigger cynicism among employees. According to the motto: It will not work anyway. "

There is no lack of change projects in the companies. Some want to work agilely, others introduce home work, and others want to improve collaboration between departments.

Lederer believes that three conditions must be met for the change to succeed. First of all, all executives would have to grasp the concept, internalize it and interpret it in the same way. "Unfortunately, almost all companies fail," he assures. "That's work."

Second, goals must be clearly identified and their impact on the individual employee broken down. "Employees are traveling in their daily world of experience. If you do not know how changes will affect you, you can not do anything with them. "

And third, one must appeal to the emotions of the workforce. "Facts bring to thinking, emotions bring to action," says Lederer strikingly. "Emotions are the key to success."

Multiply enthusiasm

The employer does not have to convince every single employee of his plan. If you win the most important people, they will bring their enthusiasm to the workforce - the well-known multiplier effect.

"The goal of good leadership must be to better explain change. There must also be a clear relation to the individual interests of the employees. You have to be motivated to get involved in these changes" explains Hannes Zacher. Good leadership is so important but without self-propelled ineffective.

The world is spinning faster and faster, and it keeps accelerating. And yet the change does not always come as a tornado, sometimes as a gentle breeze. Twenty years ago, Maiborn-Wolff developed a purchasing management system through which a tour operator buys hotel beds. It is still in operation today.

IT consultants regularly wait for their customers, adding something or other to their features. This is rather a brittle detail work and not a task for restless people who always want to swim straight to the next shore. And for ages, the same colleague cares about it, routinely and well. "I also need people who do not want the permanent change," says Volker Maiborn. It will come soon enough.

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